So I finally made my way into the Kingdom of Geekdom and have attempted to join the ranks of foreigners scrabbling to climb the dizzying heights of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test ranks, starting right at the bottom with level 5.
Edit: I passed the N5!!!
(Originally this what a much longer and detailed post, but since WordPress crashed and lost it, please enjoy this shortened version)
The exam was a Sunday morning, so after a night of non-alcohol based partying for the 4th of July, I headed to my friend’s house in Beppu, ready to travel to APU, the Uni on the hill, for the exam.
Arriving with plenty of time to spare, this would be a continuing theme throughout the day! Amazingly, levels 1 & 2 were actually the most popular, and were filled with what I suspected were international students who mostly went to the Universities in the area, whilst level 5 had a meagre 9 people taking it!
They started chasing us into the rooms with 40 minutes to spare, and so we just had to sit there in silence, the exam lady repeatedly reading instructions about not using biros, but pencils, taking the card off from around our erasers and that we had to turn off our phones, every 5 minutes.
Even when the exam and answer sheet had been passed out, we had to wait another 15 minutes until the actual start time. This happened before each test paper, of which there were 3, and we had a 30 minute break between each exam, which I wasn’t sure if I was grateful for or not…
The Exam Structure
It consists of 3 papers at this level; Language Knowledge; Grammar/Reading and Listening, taken as three separate papers. The answers are all multiple choice (a shock from doing French A-level) wherein you fill in an answer sheets of little circles, which in turn will be read by a machine. As far as I’m aware, this is true for all levels, so amazing, at no point do you ever speak or write any Japanese!
The first paper tests your kanji, and meanings of individual words; the second is about choosing the correct particles, and forms of verbs to convey meaning; the final exam is listening to questions and conversations to pull out answers, with images for context, culminating with a question with no visual prompts, simply listening to a question, and three answers, and choosing the most appropriate.
What not to do in the JLPT
There were at least 2 people in the room of 9 of us that sat level 5, that clearly had never looked at a practice paper! How do I know? Let me share the insights from their failings;
Don’t mark your all your answers in the Question Paper
The first paper is done, “Hurray!” I think to myself. As the examiner goes round, collecting the answers sheets, I couldn’t help but see the sheet of the woman next to me devoid of any black circles, and as clean looking as when she got it 45 minutes ago. The wide-eyed terror and hand clamped to the mouth for the proceeding few minutes confirmed my suspicious; she had marked all her answers in the question book, and the manic giggle of shock was truly unsettling.
Transcribe the all the questions and answers in the final part of the Listening Paper
The final question presents you with a blank page; at the head of which is メモ aka ‘memo’. The speaker comes on, and what do you do? Well, if you’re one of the examinees, you start transcribing the question, and 3 answers for each of the 6 listening questions in the final part.
Too nervous to look around, he followed this course for all 6 questions, and hand no time to mark his answer sheet!
Thoughts on the Exam
The exam is pretty indicative of the Japanese system for foreign languages – it’s super passive, even at the highest level filling in little numbered circles with your HB or No.2 pencil, and I can see exatly why so many of my friends have never sat it. It lacks any real world, everyday aspect; most notably speaking (and writing) and focuses or grammar and reading, perhaps useful for a native level job in an entirely Japanese company, but by itself is no means an assurance you could communicate with colleagues.
Quite how JETs would fair if there was a speaking exam I don’t know, given the huge gulf that exists between how speaking is presented in textbooks, how it looks in everyday plain form, and how it exists in the real world!
Did I Pass?
I’ll be really annoyed if I haven’t! But it’s entirely possible. With no idea how the questions are weighted relative to each other, it possible the mark I feel I got could vary by 10-15% over all, enough to drop into the failing range. I would like 75% overall to feel confident going onto N4. I hope my #100daysofkanji finishing in September will give me a huge boost for the language knowledge sections, and give me time to turbo charge grammar before sitting N4 at Christmas (which I’ll do unless I hideously flop N5), so that I have the summer exam to resit N4 or take N3.
Only time (or rather, August) will tell!